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The Bird & the Sea
by Simon Jacobson
A fascinating Midrash compares Haman to a foolish bird attempting to take revenge of an ocean which destroyed its nest. What this seemingly simple fable tells about the secret behind Anti-Semitism, the inner conflict within the Jewish psyche and the meaning of Jewish history. This sermon takes us on a journey into the heart of what it means to be a Jew.
 
A lonely frog, desperate for any form of company, telephoned the Psychic Hotline to find out what his future has in store.

His Personal Psychic Advisor advises him, "You are going to meet a beautiful young girl who will want to know everything about you."

The frog is thrilled and says, "This is great! Where will I meet her, at work, at a party?"

"No," says the psychic, "in a Biology class."
***
There is a fascinating Midrash (1) describing the plot of Haman, the villain of the Purim story:
“What is an apt parable for Haman the Evil One? To what can he be compared? To a bird which made its nest on the shore of the sea, then the sea came and swept away the nest. The bird said: I will not budge from here until the sea becomes dry land, and the dry land becomes the sea. What did the bird do? It took some water from the sea in its mouth and dropped it on dry land, and took dirt from the land and dropped it into the sea. Its friend came and stood alongside. He said to the bird: You ill-fated, hapless one! How do you ever hope to succeed?
“Similarly, G-d said to Haman the Evil One: Fool of fools! I myself planned to destroy the Jewish people and was, as it were, unsuccessful, as it is written (2) ‘He intended to destroy them were it not that Moses, His chosen one, stood before Him in the breach to return His wrath from destroying,’ and you, Haman, think you will be able to decimate and annihilate them?! I swear by your life, that your head will be in place of their; they will be saved and you will be hanged.”
At first glance, the Midrash is saying that the annihilation of the Jews is as impossible and ludicrous as the draining of the ocean, beak-full by beak-full, by a bird. The bird is so blinded by its anger at the sea for destroying its nest, that it does not realize the absurdity of its quest.
Yet the Midrash is perplexing for a variety of reasons.
1) The role of a metaphor in Midrashic and Talmudic literature is to explain and clarify a difficult concept. What is the concept being clarified via this metaphor of a bird attempting to drain an ocean? What component of the Haman story begs for enlightenment to be understood only via this metaphor?
2)  In the Midrashic fable, the sea first sweeps away the bird’s nest, arousing its quest for revenge. What is the paralleled meaning of this sequence of events? What did the Jewish people – compared to the sea – do to Haman – compared to the bird -- pre-empting his desire to destroy them? Is the Midrash suggesting that we, the Jews, were guilty for his ire and hatred (3)?
3) The bird was quite foolish in its strategy to dry an ocean drop by drop. It is a ludicrous proposition. Haman -- the viceroy of the greatest empire of the time, who had the full cooperation of the mightiest man in the world, King Achashveirosh – had a well-thought out plan, and it came dangerously close to fruition. Why then is he compared to the bird trying to drain the ocean, defined as the “fool of fools?”
4) The Midrash relates that “G-d said to Haman the Evil One: Fool of fools! I myself planned to destroy the Jewish people and was unsuccessful.” How can G-d be “unsuccessful?” Who can possibly stop G-d from executing His plans?
***
It is here that we discover, once again, the untold layers of depth contained in the tales of Torah literature. A simple fable in the Midrash captures the secret behind Anti-Semitism, the inner conflict within the Jewish psyche and the ultimate meaning of the long Jewish story. In this Midrashic metaphor, we are invited on a journey into the heart of what it means to be a Jew (4).
What was it that really perturbed Haman about the Jewish people? What was it about the Jews that struck such a deep cord in so many Hamans throughout the ages, until our very own times? The perpetual persecution and targeting of the Jew is one of the greatest enigmas of world history. “Why the Jews?” is one of the oldest mysteries of civilization. Are we really that different? Is our passion for golf, sushi, and a nice life, so different than our fellow gentiles? Just because we also like gefilte fish and cholent – must we be sentenced to death?
The Midrash, in its own inimitable way, gives us a perspective. Like that little desperate bird trying to take revenge for a nest which the sea swept away, Haman felt that as long as the Jews were alive, the nest he attempted to build would be washed away.
One millennium before Haman was born, at the foot of a lone mountain, the Jewish people received a gift which transformed their destiny and changed the landscape of human civilization. It was an experience which imbued Jewish life with the nobility of transcendence, the majesty of Divine ethics and the grandeur of holiness. The gift of Torah inculcated Jewish life with great moral and spiritual responsibility, but it simultaneously bestowed upon the Jewish heart, the Jewish home, the Jewish family and the Jewish community a piece of heaven, a glow of eternity.
But what is heaven for one person may spell hell for another; piano lessons for a 4-year-old Mozart is a paradise, while for another child they may be a living purgatory. Heaven for the Jews was hell for the Hamans of the world. If G-d exists, then the moral law prevails, and there must be limits to power, self-aggrandizement and barbarism. Haman felt that two diametrically opposing and mutually exclusive powers were competing for the heart of humanity. If his “nest” was to take root, the Jews must be obliterated (5).
2300 years later this notion was captured by a contemporary Haman, Adalf Hitler, who  remarked that “The Jews have inflicted two wounds on the world: Circumcision for the body and conscience for the soul. I come to free mankind from their shackles."
But Haman, the avid student of history (6), knew that this was no simple task. He had seen many powerful and seemingly permanent “nests” washed away by the Jewish “sea.” He knew what had happened to Pharaoh, Sisera, Goliath, Sancheirav and Nevuchadnezzar; how they each attempted to “drain the sea,” to eradicate the Jew once and for all and how they each ended up eradicated and forgotten themselves. Like that poor frog which ends up emerging in a biology class, all of these cultures and civilizations today appear only in history classes…
Yet the Jew still remained. Not only in Wikipedia, but in real life as well. What was the secret of this “sea?”
It is here where Haman invented an ingénues strategy. Haman believed that he had the “final solution” which had eluded all of his predecessors; he knew how to solve the “Jewish problem,” this time for real. And that was by taking beak-full after beak-full of water, and dumping it on dry land.
***
The key to this puzzle lies in reflecting on another Talmudic metaphor concerning “sea” vs. “dry land.”
The Talmud relates the following story (7):
The Evil Empire had prohibited Torah study. Pappus the son of Yehuda came and found Rabbi Akiva making large public gatherings and teaching Torah. Pappus said to him: Akiva! Aren’t you afraid of the authorities? And Rabbi Akiva replied: I will give you a parable.
A fox is walking along a river. He sees the fish frantically scurrying from one place to another.
He says to them: From whom are you running?

-- From the nets and traps of the fishermen.
Why don’t you come up to the dry land, and we will live happily together, just as our forefathers did!
The fish replied: Is it really you whom they call the cleverest of animals? You are not clever, rather a fool! If we are afraid in the place of our vitality, how much more so in the place of our death!
Rabbi Akiva concluded: If the life is tough as we are sitting and studying Torah, about which it is written “It is our life and the length of our days,” how much worse it will be if we cease to study Torah.
The Torah – Rabbi Akiva is saying -- is to the Jew what the sea is to the fish. It is his necessary habitat, the source of his vitality, it is where he can live, breathe, thrive and be most creative. Like a fish washed up ashore, the Jewish soul deprived of Torah, will struggle to find real endurable meaning on “dry land,” in an environment unsuitable for his spiritual DNA to flourish and express itself fully. He, like the fish, will flip and flop, experiment with different ideologies and lifestyles, desperately attempting to find solace for his aching soul. He may become a Darwinist, a Marxist, a Bundist, a Buddhist, a Global Warmist, or what have you, failing to realize that by his essential nature he must remain in his water.
Haman therefore understood that what he had to do was dry up the sea; sever the relationship between the Jewish people and their Torah. His goal must be to antiquate the Torah, to teach the Jews how to become “land animals.” He must invite them, in the words of the fox, to “live together with us in peace as our forefathers did.” Once the fish was out of the water, it would be vulnerable to destruction.
And the time seemed ripe for this endeavor.
***
The Talmud asks (8), why was annihilation decreed on the Jews of that generation? Because they enjoyed the feast of that wicked man (Achashveirosh, the Persian king).” As the book of Esther relates in its opening chapter, the Persian monarch threw a major feast which lasted for 180 days (you think Obama threw an inauguration party?…), and the Jews of Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire, enjoyed the feast.
Note the words: The Talmud does not state that they were guilty of eating non-kosher food (if so, it would not make a difference who was serving the meal – a wicked or a righteous person, nor is death the penalty for eating non-kosher food), in fact, the Talmud relates (9) that there was a kosher section at the king’s feast. The issue was that “they enjoyed the feast of that wicked man.” It was not the food; it was the psychological transformation of the Jewish psyche: Their dignity and sense of inner worth did not stem from their own soul and identity; it came from being invited to the Persian “White House,” from rubbing shoulders with the Iranian celebrities and from having their photos appearing on the front pages of “The Shushan Times.” As they took their places among the Persian s, Medians, Babylonians, Chaldeans and the other nationalities at the feast, they felt that they finally “made it.” After seventy years of exile, they had set themselves free from the “Jewish stereotype,” they were now a member of equal standing in the family of nations at Achashveirosh’s table (10).
Alas, the fish left the water and it was given a royal welcome! Everybody was cheering for the fish which finally made it out of its “prison,” the fish was flipping and flopping to demonstrate its excitement. But inside – it was dying…
***
An old Jew from the Soviet Union was once asked what the biggest happiness in life is.

The old Jew responded: It is to be born and live in our beautiful country!

And what is the biggest disaster? -- He was asked once again.
The old Jew says: The biggest disaster is to have such happiness…
***
This, then, was Haman’s strategy: Dry up the sea, take the Jews out of the water, introduce them to dry land, and they will become vulnerable to destruction.
***
So “G-d said to Haman: Fool of fools! I myself planned to destroy them and was not able to do so … and you, Haman, thought you would be able to decimate and annihilate them?!”
This divine response captures the essence of Jewish existence. G-d Himself, so to speak, could not destroy the Jews. Why?
Because the relationship between the Jew and Torah is innate, intrinsic and essential, and it can never severed, only eclipsed. Unlike the fish, the Jew can never really leave the water. What occurred at Sinai was that Torah has become part of the very DNA of the Jew; he can love it, he can hate it, but he can’t ignore it. He can embrace it, he can run from it, but he cannot stop being defined by it, if sometimes only negatively.
***
A story:
The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe sent a few of his Chassidim to some far-flung place in the hope of discovering and inspiring lost Jewish souls.
The Chassidim assumed this mission with vigor and after some time returned to report their finding to the Rebbe. They had indeed located a few Jews and helped them come closer to their heritage. Searching for an apt metaphor, one of them described their work as that of traveling ritual scribes who fixes faded letters on a Holy Torah scroll, the faded letters being the lost souls. The Rebbe looked up in astonishment: "Faded letters, you say? They are not faded letters. They are like the holy letters of the Ten Commandments etched in stone.
“Letters engraved in stone never fade. They are one with the stone and cannot be separated from it. At worst they get covered in dust. All that is required is for someone to come along and blow the dust away and there you will see the holy letters in all their majesty and glory."
***
A Chabad colleague from Sydney sent me a letter he received from a Jew, Edward, in Australia. 
"Although I was raised in a traditional home, was brissed and barmitzvad, I have never had any faith or "religious" belief. I am now aged 34, and would describe myself as an atheist. I have no wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery (and my Will will also make this clear) and have married a non-Jew in a civil ceremony. My question is, can I consider myself officially non-Jewish, by my effective opting-out, or do I need some sort of form or dispensation to be officially no longer Jewish?"

And the Chabad rabbi, Aron Moss, answered him:
Dear Edward,
I would like to help you, but I feel there's nothing I can do.
According to your question, you have done everything possible to negate your Jewishness: in practice you do not keep Jewish tradition; in belief you are an atheist; in family life you have married a non-Jew and thus won't have Jewish children; and even in death you are determined not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
One would think that all this would be enough to confirm your un-Jewishness.
But no!
For some reason, you are still unsatisfied: you still feel Jewish! So much so, you feel you need official dispensation!
And so, being an atheist, who do you turn to to solve this problem? A doctor? A psychiatrist? The civil celebrant that married you? No!... You turn to a rabbi!!!
I'm reminded of the child who ran away from home, but ended up just going around and around the block because his parents told him never to cross the road by himself.
I'm sorry, Edward. There is nothing more you can do. You are as Jewish as Moses, Rashi and the Chief Rabbi of Wales. In fact, it seems that being Jewish is the most dominant (albeit negative) factor of your personality. It is even influencing the place you want to be buried! (Why would an atheist care about where they are buried?)
Edward, Jewishness is not a belief, a feeling, a conviction or a lifestyle. It is who we are. We can either celebrate it or fight against it. But it will always be there. So why not celebrate it?
***
The Anti-Semites of the world never loved secular, modern and assimilated Jews any more than religious and observant Jews. Because they have acutely felt that the Jewishness of the Jew is embedded into his or her very essence, no matter the amount of “nose jobs” or soul-jobs he or she undergoes.

And paradoxically, this very truth has become our very source of eternal life. Since the Jewish people can never sever their relationship from Torah, our sea can never dry, and our existence can never be obliterated.
This is what G-d is telling Haman: Even I have tried… When the Jews sinned, I planned to destroy them, but I could not, because My relationship with them proved deeper than all of our “issues” with each other. It is like the relationship between parents and children: Parents sometimes harbor deep resentment toward the behavior of children who make their lives miserable. Sometimes a parent is tempted to write off a child, to stop helping him, even to stop loving him. But they can’t… The inner bond proves far more powerful. “A kind is a kind,” a child is a child.
Haman’s strategy was brilliant, but he failed to understand “vos eiz a yid,” what is a Jew. He did not realize that Torah to the Jew is what the piano was to Mozart. The fish will never fully leave the water, and the Jews will never die.
(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Purim 5724 (1964). It is extremely worthwhile to listen to the recorded Sicha before giving over this insight.)



Footnotes:
1) Esther Rabbah 7:10.
2) Psalms 106:23.
3) The Yafah Anaf to midrash ibid. suggests that it was Haman’s revenge against the war of the Jews against his great-great-grand father Amalek. Yet this begs the question: Amalek, too, launched an unprovoked war against the Jewish people when they left Egypt.
4) For alternate explanations for this Midrash, on the Kabbalistic and Chassidic realm, see Or Hatorah Megilas Esther; Sefer Hamamarim 5629 p.87; Pelech HaRimon Megilas Esther. In essence, this essay here based on Sichas Purim 5764 presents the explanation there in relevant language.
5) This is the depth behind the famous Talmudic metaphor about the “pit” and the “mound” (Megilah 14a), explained at length in Sichas Purim 5725, translated and discussed in the second essay here below.
6) See Talmud Megilah 13b.
7) Berachos 61b.
8) Megilah 12a.
9) Megilah ibid. Esther Rabah 2:13.
10) See at length the Sichos of Purim 5722, 5726, 5727. Likkutei Sichos vol. 31 pp. 170-176 and references noted there. This is one of the most prevalent themes in the Rebbe’s Purim farbrengens over the years, as he fought for the soul of American Jewry.
 

 


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